Thursday, 22 July 2021

How to Keep Them Quiet...? Guaranteed.

 This is an extract from Cucarachas or Cucuruchos: An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma (2019) available from Amazon.

Finally, finally, finally (or, ¡por fin! as a Spaniard would say) I’ve found the Holy Grail: a fool-proof way of keeping my class quiet. And I do mean, absolutely silent. Why didn’t I think of this before? Why didn’t anybody tell me? It will certainly go in my book: Perfect Primary Practice. It’s going to be an international bestseller (this silencing trick should certainly work on children of any nationality). I could become an advisor for Ofsted – or whatever they’re called now-a-days. The Gestapo? I don’t know.

So, What’s the secret? I hear you cry, especially if you’re a primary-school teacher and it’s nearing the end of the summer term and you’ve got another riot brewing. Well, the secret is Blu-Tack, or tacko-blanco as we call it around here because it’s white. Here’s what to do: at the end of term when it’s time to clear the walls of all your timetables; dinner menus; bus-lists; after-school-club lists; pictures, poems or stories drawn or written by the children; and all the other detritus that you’ve stuck up over the last year – just pull them all down. It’ll take you three minutes. What about all the stray blobs of Blu-Tack and torn corners of damp pages? You can’t leave them all up there! Course you can’t. But you do. And you watch.

Before long a child at your desk (it’s María) will start pulling at a stray blob while they’re telling you about their new rabbit. They won’t be alone for long, and poor old new rabbit won’t be the focus of their concentration for long either. María will be joined by Paco and Rodri. Paco and Rodri will be joined by Paula and Laura; and Luís and – and before you know what’s happened the whole class will be engrossed in the most compulsive pass-time since the Rubik Cube took over the world.

I stand and stare (and listen) in amazement as they silently pluck and pull at the minutest pieces of tacko-blanco. They seem hypnotised by the task, showing (not telling) showing each other how it comes off more easily if you use one piece of tacko-blanco in your fingers to capture the smears and blobs on the walls. They work like very-hungry caterpillars cropping the sticky goo until there’s not a micron left. Then they turn and stare at me, looking slightly stunned that half-an-hour has disappeared without any of them uttering a sound. They look almost bereft, as if they have no idea how anything will ever capture their minds so fully ever again…

Tacko-blanco: it has magic powers.

If you like the blog, why not read the eBooks? Zen Kyu Maestro: An English Teacher's Spanish Adventure, (2013 Monday Books) available from Amazon. 

And the sequel: Cucuruchos or Cucurachas? An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma, 2019 eBook or paperback from Amazon.

Two years in the life of an English teacher, teaching a class of lively Spanish seven-year-olds, in English, in Spain.

What could possibly go wrong?

“The detailed way Dean has described the atmosphere of this little city in Spain is magnificent.” Salford University, The Salfordian.
Click HERE for free sample chapters:

Thursday, 6 May 2021

The Perils of the Infant Playground...

This is an extract from 'Cucarachas or Cucuruchos: An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma', a year-in-my-life teaching Spanish primary children, in English, in Spain. What could possibly go wrong? You'll find another free sample on Amazon.

An infant teacher’s away today so I’m doing her playtime duty. I usually do duty in the ‘junior’ playground where footballs and skipping ropes dominate, although there are often also a fair number of football cards being swapped, dolls being dressed and undressed again, tops spun and cuddly toys dismembered. I know the score in the junior playground – well, as long as Toni hasn’t lost another football.

The infant playground is a whole new dimension. Here, I’m less at ease. Well, to be honest, I’ve not much idea what’s going on. Swarms of ridiculously small children bumble around, bumping into each other, like wind-up toys with pieces of their mechanisms missing. Every so often a bumbling child will collapse onto the tarmac as the wiring between brain and legs gets mangled somewhere near their belly-button. It’s my ‘duty’ to help, as Miss Dolly (who’s on duty with me) has gone to ‘powder her nose’…

‘Are you OK?’ I try gamely.


‘Shall we get you up and go and see Miss María?’


A large crowd of small spectators gathers. ‘Do you know who this is?’ I ask the spectators. I might as well ask the trees. The children look at me like I’m an exhibit in the London Dungeon: they’re hugely interested but slightly frightened. I think it’s ‘cos I’m a ‘man’. They don’t get many men around here. I might not come back in a hurry.

The wailing subsides and damaged child sits up. There’s no blood, but a fair bit of snot.

‘Go to the toilet and bring me some tissue,’ I order no one in particular. They ignore me. Actually, one of them is stroking my head. I have quite a tight crop so I guess it might feel like a hedgehog. I turn to face the child who’s stroking me. It’s a boy. He smiles although he doesn’t have many teeth. He looks at me like I am a hedgehog, or any other dumb animal who’ll let you stroke them for as long as you like. He cocks his head to one side like he’s pitying my inability to sort things out. I smile back at him. Child on floor suddenly gets up and staggers away across the playground into the melee. He’s like a mini-Frankenstein fresh off the operating table stumbling blindly into everything in his meandering path. Now I’m left on the ground with a crowd of ten or fifteen children staring at me. Two of them are now stroking my head. One of them asks me a question. I can tell it’s a question from the intonation and the fact that they’re pointing at my head. The language they’re using, however, is a mystery. A small girl with curly hair has all her fingers in her mouth, like she thinks she’s sucking a giant lolly; I hope she’s not planning on stroking my head in the near future.

Suddenly two or three start to point. And laugh. Before I can say, ‘What the hell are you laughing at?’ they’ve lost all interest in me and are starting to walk behind me. I turn around and see my career disappear.

Behind me is the entrance to the school. It’s sealed by a metal-barred gate, about four-metres wide and two-metres high. Whenever someone wants to enter the school they buzz through to the office who’ll open the gate. The gate is opening now, sliding silently to the left, as a delivery truck waits outside with hazards flashing and engine rumbling. My problem is that six or seven children have climbed onto the gate and are enjoying a slow ride – towards a quite nasty-looking mechanism which includes some pretty large metal cogs and gears. It’s a bit like a James Bond film where James Bond is tied to a board which is moving towards a circular saw spinning at great speed. The children who have been watching (and stroking) me are now pelting towards the gate to join in the relatively-low jinks. Bloody hell!

‘Get off that gate!’ I yell, wondering if any of them are capable of such a feat without risking dislocated joints or broken bones. The gate isn’t moving that quickly but, as I’ve already seen, these kids can fall over if a cloud passes overhead. ‘Get off!’ I yell again, to equal effect (none). I rush over to the site of international incident involving possible death or maiming of dozens of small children under the care of J.J.Dean, and start plucking children off the gate from the side nearest the cogs and gears. While I’m doing this I shout at the other children who are approaching me on the gate as it continues it’s journey. The children are having a wonderful time, smiling and screaming back at me; they must think I’m just joining in the ballyhoo. One boy has a particularly tight grip on the bars. I have to peel his fingers off before setting him down on the ground and reaching for the next laughing child who is inches from death but doesn’t give a monkey’s. Within seconds there’s another boy with an equally strong grip – until I notice that it’s the same boy who’s just found another space on the gate and has jumped back on.

‘Again!’ he shouts, nodding towards his fingers which are turning white with the effort.

I’m finally saved when the gate stops, fully open. I breathe a long sigh before noticing my next problem. Luckily, the driver isn’t planning to drive his truck into the playground (I wouldn’t have bet against it), but what he is going to do is carry his packet to the office while the office staff leave the gate open until he returns. I stand in the middle of the entrance facing into the playground. A dozen children, twenty now, maybe thirty, line up facing me, staring beyond me into the orange groves on the other side of the road. I honestly can’t see what they’re staring at, they come in and out of this gate every day, it’s not like I’ve opened Narnia’s wardrobe for them to look into.

A girl points. I look around. There’s a dog.

Wild dogs – well, OK, strays – are quite common around here. This one is a brown 57 who doesn’t look dangerous. No, it’s worse. Much worse. He looks playful. His head is cocked to one side, a bit like the little boy who was stroking me five minutes ago when my problems couldn’t possibly get any worse. The dog takes a tentative step towards me. Oh god!

‘Get away!’ I say, ridiculously in English. ‘¡Vete!’ I try, which I’m pretty sure means get outa here you mangy mongrel. He prances towards me like I want him to play. ‘Goo on! Get ouda here!’ He jinks past me and is in.

Utter bedlam. Complete chaos. Imagine aliens invade a busy IKEA firing lasers. Kids are screaming in all directions, bumping and bashing into the trees and each other, tripping over balls and ants. Within seconds there are half a dozen on the floor nursing cut knees and god-knows what else. I’m powerless to do anything except guard the entrance to make sure none of them run out onto the road. Where the hell is Miss Dolly?

I spot the van driver coming back across the playground looking bemused at the carnage that is underway.

Perro!’ (dog) I say as he passes me, like this will explain everything. He raises his head in an ‘Oh, right,’ sort of expression. Then he puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles the loudest whistle I’ve ever heard. The dog appears from the mayhem and pelts towards him provoking another epidemic of tripping and bumping into each other. Driver gives me a little salute as he climbs into his cab. The gate starts to close.

Dolly saunters out as the bell goes and the gate clicks shut. She’s not exactly hurrying to begin with but her pace slows as she takes in the battlefield. There are children hobbling towards her pointing at their grazed knees and elbows and wailing like zombies. She looks at me. Her look says I leave you alone for five minutes…

Next time they’re looking for some sucker to do duty in the infant playground? I’ve got a dentist’s appointment for root canal.

If you like the blog, why not read the eBooks? Zen Kyu Maestro: An English Teacher's Spanish Adventure, (Monday Books) available from Amazon. 

And the sequel: Cucuruchos or Cucurachas? An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma, eBook or paperback from Amazon.

Two years in the life of an English teacher, teaching a class of lively Spanish seven-year-olds, in English, in Spain.

What could possibly go wrong?

“The detailed way Dean has described the atmosphere of this little city in Spain is magnificent.” Salford University, The Salfordian.
Click below for free sample chapters:
Zen Kyu Maestro      Cucarachas 

Sunday, 2 May 2021

Yo Me Vacuno Seguro

You might find these three health education videos (from the Spanish Ministerio de Sanidad) useful for your students to translate:

Vera Enfermera

Juan Jubilado

Sonía Viróloga

If you like the blog, why not read the eBooks? Zen Kyu Maestro: An English Teacher's Spanish Adventure, (Monday Books) available from Amazon. 

And the sequel: Cucuruchos or Cucurachas? An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma, eBook or paperback from Amazon.

Two years in the life of an English teacher, teaching a class of lively Spanish seven-year-olds, in English, in Spain.

What could possibly go wrong?

“The detailed way Dean has described the atmosphere of this little city in Spain is magnificent.” Salford University, The Salfordian.
Click below for free sample chapters:

  Zen Kyu Maestro      Cucarachas eBook paperback

Saturday, 24 April 2021

What About All Those Long Holidays...?

An extract from Cucarachas or Cucuruchos: An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma. Free sample chapter available HERE

TEACHING HAS ITS DOWNSIDES: one of the biggest always occurs when people find out what you do. Very few blurt it out immediately. They beat about the bush, asking you which subject you teach, or which age group; they tell stories about teachers they remember (for good or bad); they disclose their favourite subjects, the ones they were good at - and they often want you to know the ones they hated (it's usually PE); they complain about the amount of homework they got (too much) and the amount their own children get (not nearly enough).

But if you're a teacher, you know this is all preliminary. The hors d'oeuvre before the main course, the warm-up before the kick-off, the trailer before the feature. You know what they're going to say, at some point in the conversation (nearly always just after you've expressed a slight dissatisfaction about some educational issue or other): they give you a curt little nod of the head and a slightly accusatory fixing of the eyes before finally saying what they’ve wanted to say since they first discovered you were a teacher.

'Ah, but what about all those long holidays?'

They usually cross their arms at this point, like they’ve caught you telling porkies, or filching a couple of extra pencils from the stock cupboard. They might look sideways at another member of the group and nod another curt little nod like they’ve discovered a new prime number or solved the Irish backstop problem. They wait for me to put up a defence, to say that we need to recover from a full-on job, re-charge our batteries, prepare next year's materials. This is all true. But it's never the response I give.

Instead, I shake my head slightly wistfully, like I've just taken the first lick of a rum'n'raisin ice-cream, then I sigh a little sigh and quietly say, 'Yeah, fantastic.'

They usually change the subject after that. 

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Hey, Macarena - the Only Way to Teach the Times Tables...

 This is an extract from Zen Kyu Maestro: An English Teacher's Spanish Adventure, Monday Books, 2013, available from Amazon.

I CLICK THE ‘PLAY’ button on my laptop and my maths lesson is shattered by the chugging drumbeat and incessant bass line of an MP3 file I downloaded a couple of years previously. It’s a lesson idea I tried without a lot of success a few times back in the UK. I have an inkling that I might have more luck here.

A mass of heads jolt upright in startled disbelief as the tune gathers momentum. Pablo (the First) is the first to gather his wits. He joins in with the drumbeat using the flats of his palms on the desktop.

Carmen, Macarena and María Two are swaying rhythmically in their seats and (surprisingly quickly) synchronising a sort of hand-jive which takes them left, then right, then forwards, then backwards (but not yet out of their chairs).

I’m sitting at my desk pretending to be engrossed in the weekly spelling test results. The vast majority of the class are still looking stunned, thinking maybe that I’ve accidentally hit the wrong key on my laptop while simultaneously going deaf.

The vocal line starts, accompanied in perfect timing by at least a dozen of my more brazen flock, many of whom also send their chairs skittering backwards and jump to their feet, arms flapping in unison, hips swaying and gyrating in time.

My numeracy lesson begins. We’re (well, they’re) dancing the Macarena. Mac herself is blushing slightly as a dozen fingers point as they sing the chorus: ‘Hey, Macarena!’ But she’s safely flanked by Carmen and María Two so she dances on undeterred, her Latin blood obviously too strong to submit to any minor embarrassment.

I don’t really know the moves of the Macarena. It wasn’t my era, I was much more of a Le Freak man. But it’s not difficult to copy the movements ever so mutedly, as I continue to puzzle over a dozen permutations of the spelling of ‘wait’. There is near uproar. Pablo (the First) redoubles the enthusiasm of his hip-swinging, possibly afraid that I might be about to steal his limelight. This encourages most of the others to join in now, with the notable exception of Jake.

Jake is nailed rigidly to his seat with a look of horror chiselled into his features. He’s probably never seen a teacher dance the Macarena before, seated or otherwise. Not at the start of a maths lesson, anyway.

The song reaches its conclusion. Pandemonium. They’re hopping and squealing and hugging each other. ‘¡Otra! ¡Otra!’ (again, again) they chant.

If…’ I bellow, my hands up in the air, trying to regain the smallest modicum of control over this seething mass of junior excitement. ‘I’ll play it again if…’

Yes, yes, OK, vale!’

‘…if I can teach you some new words. Very easy words.’

Vale, OK!’

Right! Now watch and listen.’ I put my hands behind my ears and mime being unable to hear anything. This isn’t brilliant acting, the noise would drown out The Who jamming in the corner. Their furious shushing for quiet increases the volume by 10% and showers me with spittle, but they finally quieten. I grab a marker and scribble across the board, ‘3, 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, 30, 33, 36, Hey MACARENA!’ Then I hit the play button and they burst into life.

I quickly carve my way through the disco and crouch down in front of Jake. It’s clear this is never going to be his style. He’s got about as much Latin blood in him as a Pukka Pie. I could just about imagine him singing and dancing if Sheffield Wednesday were to win the Champions League, but we’d have a long wait for that.

Listen, Jake,’ I plead. ‘I need someone who’s brilliant at maths!’ He’s not, but that’s not the point. ‘Could you point at the numbers on the board as I sing them? This lot are never going to get it right if you don’t help me.’ I flick my eyes towards his gyrating classmates with a look that says, ‘Look, they’re crazy. I can’t manage them on my own!’

I no ’av to dance?’ he checks.

No, you don’t have to dance,’ I reply.

Vale!’ he says, making disturbingly better progress with Spanish than with his English.

We just about make it into position as the vocals start and I boom out the three-times table, drowning out whatever it is the singers are singing and nailing each number to the incessant beat that the hand (and hip) movements follow. Jake tries gamely to keep up with his pointing duties but he’s only made it as far as ‘18’ as the rest of us are bellowing, ‘Hey Macarena!’ and doing that neat little two-footed jump with 90 degree turn included. Luckily, Pablo (the First) is a whizz at maths, so he picks it up instantaneously. Carmen, Mac and María Two are also pretty sharp cookies, so I’ve soon got the three-times table drowning out anyone who is still trying to sing the original lyrics.

We reach the end and again, I have to use every trick I know (short of a large tin of Quality Street) to get them off cloud nueve and ready to listen. I’ve got an unforeseen problem when we get to 21. All the numbers before 21 have one or two syllables, perfect to fit in with the beat of the song; 21, sadly, has three syllables and the ones who know their three times tables this far can’t say it quickly enough for them to be ready to say ‘24’ on time, which is another three syllables. By the time we get to 27, a four-syllable number, they are so far off the pace that it’s degenerating into a fine solo performance (guess who) until we reach the punch line of ‘Hey Macarena’ when everyone joins in lustily, including, I’ve noticed with some surprise and pleasure, Jake.

I pray that Ofsted aren’t in the vicinity, as I do a quick demonstration of how boys who were brought up in Cricklewood learned how to say ‘Twenny’, using only one syllable, instead of ‘twenty’, using two. Before long I’m chanting, ‘Twenny-one, twenny-four, twenny-sevn,’ at them and they’re parroting them back perfectly using only two syllables for each. I do a similar, slight adjustment to 33 and 36 and we’re off and running again.

They barely miss a beat, although I manage to crash a verse by putting my hands on my hips when I should have put them on my head, but they give me pitying, raised eyes and we regain our composure and carry on regardless.

¡Otra!’ they yell.

It’s too easy,’ I yell back as I rub the 6, 12 and 18 off the board.

Eeeeesss EEEEEEEEEEZZZZZZZZEEEEEE!’ they respond and we start again.

It’s playtime but they don’t want to go out. Even more remarkable, it’s snack-time and they’re not interested.

OK, OK,’ I concede, feigning great reluctance, ‘We’ll do it again tomorrow, but only if you can sing it without any numbers written on the board!’ I clean the board theatrically. ‘Tomorrow, no numbers on the board!’ I repeat, for those who seem slightly to have lost the drift.

Bedlam. ‘¡We do eeet!’ they yell, leaping up and down and hugging each other.

I escape to the staffroom for a saline drip and return to the class to find a huddle of a dozen or so around a table. I edge closer to wig what they’re saying.

Macarena (appropriately) seems to be in charge. ‘Next ees 24 but you say twenny-four, den ees 27 and you say twenny-sev’n quickly, quickly, quickly!’

Scraps of paper are being scribbled on hurriedly. I mosey across.

What’s all this?’ I bellow, nearly sending Carmen into Earth orbit. ‘That’s cheating! You can’t take it home and practise!’

You no say we no can!’ Pablo (the First) responds dismissively. If I’ve not said they no can then I guess I’ve got no argument. I bluster on a bit but they quickly see that I’m not really going to try to stop them.

Then I notice that even Jake has a damp scrap clutched in his palm. And as they head for the playground, humming the tune and swinging their hips, even he makes a rather stiff-limbed attempt to join in.

It might not always be clear what I’m teaching them, but it’s becoming obvious what they’re teaching me (and Jake). They have such energy, such enthusiasm, they love to be involved. Linda and I are seriously doubting whether we’ll stick it out here for two years, but at moments like this I feel sure I’ll want to. They might have been learning the three times table; I’ve been learning how to teach, all over again.

I have used this lesson before, but never with such a response. It makes me think that, as well as needing a lot of spoken work, these children really do respond well to a more active style of learning. A second year would be an opportunity for me to develop things more in that direction.

I hear the three-times-table Macarena starting up in the playground, so I look out of the window. A dozen of them are in two lines (Macarena out front) swinging and jerking in perfect time. Well, nearly perfect time. For in the back row, at the far end, moving a split second after all the rest, is Jake. (He even seems to be having a good stab at the words!)

A note on copyright. While I’d love to be able to pretend that the idea for the Macarena Times Tables lesson was mine, sadly I can’t. There are very few primary lessons with a copyright attached. I saw this lesson idea in the Times Educational Supplement around about 2004 as a suggestion sent in by someone, somewhere. Whoever you are, thank you – and if you haven’t already had the chance, I hope one day you’ll be able to teach it to a class of Spanish children. But a word of warning… Make sure you fully warm up the muscles around your hips before you start!

Click on the image for a free sample chapter of Zen Kyu Maestro (

Sunday, 9 August 2020

How a Jar of Clams Nearly Ended my Career...

An extract from Cucarachas or Cucuruchos? An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma. Details below.

There’s quite a crowd surrounding Manuel as he bustles into the classroom this morning. What’s he got today? As usual, all the excited babble is in Spanish. I ease myself into a position to see above the bobbing heads. It’s a jam jar full of water. There’s something lurking at the bottom.

            ‘What have you got?’ I ask in a sing-song, Blue-Petery, early-in-the-day voice.

            Manuel holds the jar aloft and shrugs. ‘I no no weet een eengleesh,’ he says, slightly crestfallen.

            A nuclear weapon of noise explodes around him as everybody gives a view of what’s in Manuel’s treasure jar.

            ‘OK, OK,’ I say, in a slightly less Blue-Petery tone. ‘Let me have a look.’ It’s some kind of mollusc but I’ve no clue whether they’re cockles or mussels. I’ve some doubt whether they’re alive-alive-oh, given that Manuel’s had them captive for most of the weekend. Half a dozen of them are lurking in the murk at the bottom of the jar, each about the size of a butter bean.

            I scan my mob for someone who might just have an edge over the others in matters mariscos. It’s not promising. I can hear lots of muttered suggestions, all of them muttered with 101% certainty, all of them different. I have to admit I’m not a big seafood eater, nor an eater of big seafood, so although I recognise many of the Spanish words, I couldn’t actually translate any of them into English.

            ‘You see ees lengua?’ Manuel points excitedly at a creamy-coloured tongue probing out from one that is still just about alive-alive-oh after all.

            ‘Very nice,’ I say. ‘Where did you get them?’

            En la playa.’

            ‘In English, please.’ He must know this.

            ‘Da bitch!’ he says, proudly.

            ‘Yes, the beach. Were they in the sea?’

            He looks confused. ‘Dey in da warder.’

            ‘In the sea.’ I emphasise ‘sea’ but Manuel ignores me.

            ‘My dad he coger dem but my mum she say you poot hems back but my dad he say ees OK I wanna traer thems to see you and my mum she gritar when all de warder it go on the silla in coche.’ I manage to turn that lot into news that there was a family row over whether he could bring them into school which reached a peak when Manuel spilled some of the water in the car...

            ‘Sounds like you had a lovely day out,’ I say, and notice the aptly named Mar (which means ‘sea’) smirking. She can have a level 4 for comprehension at the end of the year.

            ‘I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,’ I announce, before Manuel has a chance to let us all know whether the row escalated later on when he probably emptied them all out onto the living room carpet. ‘Miss Macarena knows a lot about these things so I’m just going to pop next door and ask her while you change your reading books.’

            Everyone nods that Miss Macarena is a world expert on marine-life except Alma, who’s got her hand up and a worried look on her face. ‘What ees “pop”?’ she asks with a seriousness that is not normal for a seven-year-old.

            ‘Ummm, it means “go”,’ I say, hoping fervently that she doesn’t ask why...


            ‘Is almeja,’ la señorita Macarena says with calm certainty. Maybe she is a world expert on marine-life after all. ‘Bu- I no no weet een English.’

            ‘No matter,’ I say, pudging my phone with my index finger. ‘I’ve got a translator on this... clam! OK, thanks.’

            ‘Kwam?’ la señorita Mac says, looking for confirmation. I show her the screen and say,   ‘Claaam,’ as clearly as I can. I can hear a bit of ‘noise’ from next door...


            ‘Right! I’ve got it,’ I bellow above the din as I stride back into my room. There’s no blood evident and no-one’s crying so I breeze on. ‘Come and sit down for the register and we can have a little talk about Manuel’s almejas, his clams!’

            A dozen permutations of the word ‘clam’ ring out as the children settle down on the floor. Pablo and Paco are arguing about which of them said ‘almeja’ first. I fire up my (non-interactive) whiteboard and pop- sorry, putalmeja’ into ‘Come and tell us about your clams!’ I beckon to Manuel who, as always, is thrilled to have a chance to chat to a willing audience.

            I carefully steer him around the family row, which evidently did escalate when Manuel dropped one clam into his granny’s lap when they went for paella after their morning on da bitch. With a little prompting he manages to use words like ‘bucket’ and ‘paddle’ to describe the collecting process and the children have loads of suggestions about the best ways to cook them. Then I spot Alma with her hand up and a worried look on her face.

            ‘Yes, Alma,’ I say.

            ‘Ees cat?’ she asks, deadpan.

            My brain goes on strike. I try to form my face into an ‘appropriate’ expression as I stare silently at her but the muscles have all gone into spasm.

            ‘Ees pussy cat?’ she continues, and I wonder if I should speak to her parents as soon as I’ve got some sensation back into my lips. It’s on the tip of my tongue to ask her why she’s asking such (bizarre) questions but that would only invite meltdown.

            ‘It’s a clam,’ I say, as kindly as I can.

            She nods, then puts her hand up again. I give her the nod.

            ‘What ees “vah-hee-na”?’ she asks.

            ‘Vah-hee-na?’ I repeat.

            She nods.

            ‘Is that English?’ I ask. ‘Or Spanish?’

            ‘Ees English,’ she says, quietly. ‘And “fanny”?’

            I feel my lower jaw dislocating from its mountings and bouncing a couple of times on my chest. She’s said it so clearly and perfectly, even stressing the first syllable as you do. Whenever you say it. If ever you say it... Fan-ny.

            ‘Wha- I, er, ummm, where did you hear that,’ I ask, trying to sound nonchalant, like she’s asked me what ‘horse’ means, or ‘frog’.

            ‘I read it,’ she says.

            ‘Where?’ I venture.

            She points. At my whiteboard. For some spiteful reason my brain sends a cold shiver down my neck as I turn and look at word reference’s translation of almeja into clam. It’s a noun feminine, I see immediately, although I could have guessed that from the ‘a’ on the end. Then I notice a second translation underneath. This one is also a noun feminine, but crucially, it’s also colloquial. And vulgar.


            Jesus Christ!

            ‘Vah-hee-na!’ Manuel rolls it around his vocal chords. And, as I’ve taught them to do with new words, they all start saying it with varying intonations.

            ‘Ees vah-hee-na, or vah-gee-na?’ Pepa asks, and I regret bitterly having spent so much time showing them how an English ‘g’ makes a different sound in a word such as ‘got’ as opposed to ‘gee-gee’.

            Wayne, my one British kid, has his hand up and I know for a fact he wants to tell everyone that an English ‘i’ rarely makes the Spanish ‘eee’ sound! From the evil glint in his eye I have a nasty suspicion that he also wants to provide us with a definition. But before I get the chance to shush him I notice the next translation of almeja. It’s ‘offensive’ apparently, in the UK at least.


            For some reason I can’t quite fathom, this seems to be one of the few English words that Spanish kids can pronounce perfectly.

            ‘Fanny,’ Manuel says inquisitively, as if he’s trying to remember it so he can tell his dad (who’s also learning English) a new word this afternoon when he gets home. ‘What ees fanny?’      

            I pray la directora doesn’t wander in to collect the register which I haven’t even started.

            ‘Ees animal?’

            ‘Ees pussy,’ Alma says with great authority, pointing at the next translation. ‘Nice pussy.’

            Then, I take one more glance at the list of translations for the Spanish word almeja and I see my career flash before my eyes, screaming wildly, and shouting ‘See you next Tuesday...’ The heat-induced sweat dribbling down my back is suddenly engulfed by a tsunami of the shock and stress-induced variety. I slam the laptop lid shut and yank the VGA lead out with a force that could move a fully-laden Jumbo jet along the runway at Heathrow.

            ‘What ees cu-‘ Alma starts, but I cut her dead.

            ‘I’ve got a wonderful surprise!’ I blurt, unsure of what I’m going to say next, but certain that it has to grab her attention away from what she might just have read on my whiteboard. ‘Ummmmm. We’re going to........ ummm, go out side- and- yes, have an extra playtime!’ I say the last two words with huge enthusiasm, like I’ve got a swimming pool full of ice-cream ready for them to dive into. This seems to do the trick; there is a monstrous roar of junior delight and a slight diminishing in the flow of sweat squirting out of my pores.

            As I lead them out, dancing and hugging each other, I feel a tug on my shirt. It’s Alma. She has a worried look on her face.

            ‘What ees...’ she begins.

            ‘Why don’t you bring a skipping rope?’ I offer. I know she loves skipping. ‘We could play that game with the months when you have to jump in on your birthday?’ I know they all love that one. Alma looks torn. The birthday months skipping game, or that last ‘extra’ translation that she wants explained...

            ‘Tell you what, I’ll skip first,’ I offer.

            ‘Oh yes, Meesa Dee, you skeep too-‘ a whole gang of them start bellowing. And Alma is caught up with childish delight for something completely insignificant, all her thoughts about learning new words are erased, and my career survives a brush with Manuel’s clams...

An extract from Cucarachas or Cucuruchos: An English Teacher's Spanish Dilemma, eBook or paperback available from AMAZON. Click on the cover below for another free extract or to purchase.

Saturday, 8 August 2020

A Load of Rubbish? Is there anything more pointless than trying to understand collective nouns?


Did you know that the collective noun for rats is a 'mischief'? I remember learning loads of collective nouns when I was at school. Learning collective nouns (as they’re called) used to be an essential part of a good education, once upon a time. (As was Latin, learning how to use a slide rule, and being hit with plimsoles or rulers by your teachers.) Then it all went out of fashion. 

            Collective nouns always seemed quite ridiculous to me for a number of reasons. There were so many of them to start with that it was impossible to remember them all. As well as a swarm of bees, a pack of dogs, and a murmuration of starlings - there’s a cackle of hyenas, a flamboyance of flamingos, a scurry of squirrels, a memory of elephants, a rhumba of rattlesnakes, a stubbornness of rhinoceroses, an implausibility of gnus, a descent of woodpeckers… I’ve barely started. What sort of linguistic madness is this? Who, in their right mind, is going to announce in the middle of their safari trip: ‘Oh, look, a stubbornness of rhinoceroses.’ People will think you’re in need of sedation, or a course of lessons in ‘getting a grip’. Would there ever be a situation, in any normal life, where the knowledge that a gang of rhinos is called a stubbornness, would in any way be useful, or interesting? Or would it always make you look like some kind of a loser in desperate need of a straight-talking friend?

            And what do you do if you spot a few zebras, for example, and you don’t know the correct collective noun? Do you risk being humiliated by the resident pedant in your jeep by saying, ‘Oh, look at that lovely bunch of zebras’? Actually, zebras would be a good one to choose as, with luck, the pedants would start a small war as they argue whether zebras are a dazzle, a crossing, a zeal, a cohort or a bog-standard herd, all of which (according to the blabbernet) are correct. Think I’ll stick to bunch myself - might catch on.

            It gets worse, you wouldn’t credit it, but it does. Geese are a good example of the English language completely losing the right to be taught ever again. You’re probably murmuring ‘gaggle’ under your breath but just hold on to your (herd of) horses. A gaggle is only used when geese are on the ground. If they’re flying then it’s a skein of geese. That is completely batty. (A colony of bats, if you’re really interested.) Hit google and you’ll discover that nearly every animal has more than one option. Bats are also a cloud; hyenas a clan; squirrels a dray; elephants a herd…

            Did you know (do you care) that this psychosis for giving ridiculous names to groups isn’t confined to animals? I didn’t realise this myself, until recently, well, about ten minutes ago, as my teachers (St. Georges, Maida Vale, London – name and shame) decided not to expand my vocabulary beyond collective nouns for animals. What were they playing at? No wonder I never made it in the City or politics. I could have been Prime Minister had they taught me that it’s an argument of wizards, a banner of knights, a charm of fairies, a flap of nuns, a glory of unicorns... And no, a unicorn is not another animal!

            And why stop there? What sort of a half-hearted language is it that doesn’t have a collective noun for a load of forks, for example? Pathetic. I’m going to invent one now. From now on it’s a fusillade of forks. Yes, that sounds good. ‘Hey Linda, some hungry guests have just arrived, shall I open a tin of peaches and grab a fusillade of forks from the drawer?’ And what about flowers? Don’t they deserve collective nouns? ‘When they’ve gone, I think I’ll plant a riviera of roses in front of the bins. Wha’dya think?’

            ‘Great idea! And how about a doodle of daffodils next to the compost heap?’

            ‘Oh, well, I thought a hysteria of wisteria would look good there. Is that a siren I can hear?’

            ‘Yes, it must be an alarm of ambulances. I think they’ve stopped outside: get your coat!’

            So, should we bring back the teaching of collective nouns? In fact, wasn’t this one of the main arguments for Brexit? Taking back control of our collective nouns? I’m sure Boris Johnson said they’d been banned by the EU. Sadly, I think that ship (fleet, if there are more than one) has sailed. Could you imagine trying to sort out the mess and then deciding on one name to learn for each? I mean, you couldn't expect children to learn them all. That would cause an almighty row, as all the pedants (and Michael Gove) argued about which one was 'correct'. I always thought ‘mischief’ was correct for rats, as that was what my teachers had taught me. It’s quite a revelation to learn that your teachers were quite possibly useless. Worrying, really. No, probably best not to bother exhuming collective nouns. It would only start a row as I said ‘mischief’ and other people said ‘plague’ or ‘swarm’ or ‘pack’ or ‘colony’. Or even ‘horde’. Because that was what they learned at school while I was being reliably informed that it was a ‘mischief’ - and hit with a plimsole if I didn’t remember it the following Tuesday morning. I'm going to stick with 'mischief' myself. No particular reason - except for the psychological scars.

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Two years in the life of an English teacher, teaching a class of lively Spanish seven-year-olds, in English, in Spain.

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